7 Books You Never Understood When You First Read Them
Reading is a magical and multi-layered experience — which is great, except for the fact that it means a lot of the time you have no idea what's going on. This is particularly true when you look back at the books you read in high school or even earlier. Suddenly, your favorite harmless story about farm animals turns out to be a political commentary — and you had no clue. Books with hidden deeper meanings can be incredibly powerful... or incredibly embarrassing, when you just don't get it.
That's why revisiting childhood classics is such a treat: you gain something new from the experience every single time you re-read them. Oh, and you also get to laugh at quite how drastically you misunderstood them the first time around.
Of course, not every literary misinterpretation can be blamed on the innocence of youth. Fairly often, I'll read a book at the same time as a friend — and it's only when we compare notes that I realize I had totally missed the point. Which is pretty embarrassing, for a Lit major.
Luckily, I know I'm not alone. It's OK, it's a safe space here. We can all admit it: we never understood these seven books the first time around.
1. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
This was the most-read book of my whole childhood (and no, I never forgave the Ella Enchanted movie adaptation for being so terrible) — and yet, even though I read it approximately 587 times, I never understood that so much of it is about consent. Once I had it pointed out to me though, it's a really interesting way to introduce children to the truth that they should never have to do anything they don't want to do — and that even if they're not being violently forced into anything, nothing less than enthusiastic consent is enough.
2. Animal Farm by George Orwell
If you figured out on your first reading in high school that Animal Farm is about Stalinism and the events leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution...well, then kudos to you. Because I certainly didn't.
3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
When my English class first read this one, I remember thinking it was a pretty terrifying action story, and that my teacher kept asking us if we thought a group of all girls would have behaved the same way. (I've experienced being snowed in for a weekend at my all-girls boarding school with a finite amount of snacks, so I know that the answer to that question is "yes".) But I definitely didn't understand quite how deeply this book was diving into the human nature, and the morality of individuality versus the common good. I just thought Ralph was a jackass and left it at that.
4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
I hear a lot of people listing A Clockwork Orange as their favorite novel, so I guess at least some of them must have understood it. But A Clockwork Orange is not an easy book to read — not least because of the fact that half the book is literally written in a made up language.
5. Atonement by Ian McEwan
I only fell in love with this book after watching the movie to help me make sense of it; the first time I attempted to read it I got totally lost. Spoiler alert: half of the novel turns out never to have even happened. Like, what?!
6. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
There's so much going on in this novel: you've got a magical universe hidden inside a wardrobe, creatures that are half-animal half-goat, and a magic spell that makes it perpetually winter. In amongst all that, how are you supposed to have time to figure out it's all a Christian allegory? No, I don't buy it. There's no way any of you understood that the first time around.
7. Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce
This has gone down in history as one of the most confusing novels of all time. It's full of literary experiments, stream of consciousness, and made-up words — making it darn near impossible to understand the first time you tackle it. In fact, unless you're safely armed with the SparkNotes guide — you don't stand a chance.